Part 5. The Problem: Disability Discrimination

Social Workers Union Blog Series | Social workers are facing discrimination and disadvantage with employers | Part 5. The Problem: Disability Discrimination

SWU Assistant General Secretary Calum Gallacher continues his series of two-part articles about trends that have been brought to his attention by SWU-BASW A&R Workers / Trade Union Officials. These are significant issues specific to the discrimination and disadvantage social workers are facing with employers, because of the actions of individuals or the cultures of organisations.

Traditional perceptions / assumptions of disability have evolved far beyond the generalisations of physical or learning disabilities. Society now more readily recognises an array of invisible disabilities.

Invisible disabilities such as mental health conditions (including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, personality disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder), sensory and processing difficulties relating to hearing or sight, cognitive impairment, including dementia, acquired brain injury, learning disabilities or learning difficulties (dyspraxia, dyslexia), and non-visible health conditions like diabetes, chronic pain or fatigue, respiratory conditions, incontinence.

Autistic spectrum conditions and ADHD having become almost a separate disability movement under the auspices of neuro divergence.

During the 1990’s, as an unqualified worker supporting children and young adults with learning disabilities, I frequently encountered public misunderstanding of behaviours congruent with disabilities.

This included assumptions that the child being supported, to participate in the community, was merely a badly behaved child. I distinctly remember being out in a group and one child began to behave in a manner causing risk of harm to themselves, the other children in our group, and the public. I had to remove the child, in protocol with risk assessment and control and restraint training, and as we sat outside with me restraining this child in a basket hold (now an illegal restraint) on the pavement – waiting for a colleague to rescue us by car – I wondered… why no one is asking if we are ok, or what I was doing with this child was I trying to harm them.

I am clear in my mind that this lack of public concern was disability discrimination; this child had a syndrome which had distinct features, and had the child had an invisible disability I still wonder if the police might have been phoned.

Disability rights were my inspiration for becoming as social worker, I wanted to challenge the two-tiered system of child protection I encountered.

Often witnessing children with learning disabilities remain with parents assessed unable to care, for various reasons, while their more able siblings were removed from their care. The justification – a lack of resources, not enough specialist foster carers and the myth that they don’t experience abuse in the same way. This was said to me by more than one social worker and to the last to do so who was defensively justifying the prejudice or discrimination of the child protection system, I waved a chapter from Child Neglect: Practice Issues for Health and Social Care, edited by Julie Taylor and Brigid Daniel, explaining the unique impact of neglect of children who have disabilities.

Advocating as an unqualified worker was never effective enough, I needed to gain a qualification in social work to challenge discrimination more effectively, and support people to live with choice, dignity, respect, inclusion and equality.

For those of you who may not have heard of Social Role Valorisation (SRV), Wolf Wolfensberger’s evolutionary theory of Normalisation – I encourage you to read it. In its origins it was dismissed as idealistic and unachievable, or necessary, to offer equal citizenship to people with disabilities. Wolfensberger’s theory is often overlooked, in current day, in terms of how influential is has been in health and social care practice and social policy formation. It paved the way for pro-choice policies such as direct payments and self-directed support.

The recognition of rights and legal entitlements of people who have a disability has changed significantly over the last 3-4 decades.

First with the Human Rights Act 1988 then later via enaction of the Disability Discrimination Act. The anticipation of such legislation provoked major anxieties for private businesses and employers across all sectors in considering how they could comply, or how they would be forced to include people of difference, people with disabilities in social and employment opportunities.

Society has always preferred difference to be invisible, still does to some extent, but movements such as Disability Rights UK will continue to challenge and pursue progressive rights for people affected by disabilities.

By definition of the Equality Act 2010 the government recognises disability as any condition which has lasted more than 12 months, or severely restricts a person’s executive or social functioning on a daily basis. It has been argued that the Equality Act has in some ways diluted the rights of people with disabilities.

We social workers more readily recognise the disabilities of people we regularly provide with support, but we also have a serious role to play in supporting the disability employment rights of our colleagues.

If you are a social worker and need advice on any matters regarding managing disability at work and employer responsibilities, you can access this here.

A photo of SWU Assistant General Secretary Calum Gallacher speaking at a podium

Calum Gallacher

SWU Assistant General Secretary

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Part 6 of this series will be a vlog (video blog) discussion with Calum Gallacher and two SWU Trade Union Officials about the topic of disability discrimination.

You may also be interested in the SWU webinar “Stepping stones towards decent working conditions” and the SWU blog “Austerity’s dog whistles inform systemic violence – disability discrimination“.